Home Cover story The anti-establishment

The anti-establishment

A new opposition

by Matt Nash

As a nation, Lebanon was doomed from the start. This is the unifying theme of the mainstream anti-establishment message. The country’s sectarian power-sharing arrangement spawned a cancer that prevented the growth of a national identity and crippled state institutions. Today, a “leader” in Lebanon cannot rally the nation. He can rally his community, or a fraction of it. That is about it. And just to be clear, using “he” does not indicate gender insensitivity. There is almost no space at the political top in Lebanon for a “she,” a fact many among the burgeoning opposition are quick to lament.

Lebanon, so the argument goes, must abandon community quotas in all state positions, and its people must see themselves as citizens with equal rights, not serfs begging favors of a lord. How to achieve this, and what to do once in power, of course, are far more complicated questions.

Over the past two months, Executive sat with nine parties, groups, and individuals with political aspirations who self-identify as anti-establishment (a fraction of the 30 or so group sources say are considering parliamentary runs). Nearly all are taking aim at the parliamentary elections slated for the first half of 2018 (two groups were not certain if — or how — they would run, and two groups Executive wanted to speak with declined to talk, as they had not yet decided whether to contest the polls). Those set on running hope to unseat the parties who have held power for the past 27 years, if not longer; parties the new opposition accuses of selling Lebanon to the highest foreign bidder, while ruling with fear and favors in a system where inequality under the law has become an accepted norm. A Lebanon for fully equal Lebanese citizens is the promise on every lip, with only one aspirant, Roger Edde, making full decentralization an absolute public policy priority.

No interviewee believed the task ahead would be easy. In fact, nearly everyone interviewed stopped Executive at one point in the conversation to clarify that the establishment may yet postpone the 2018 elections (which would be the fourth delay for polls originally scheduled for mid-2013). However, when it comes to actually attempting to unseat a political class that has a massive arsenal of name recognition, party mechanics, and clientelist loyalty, visions on how this should be done vary. As do political platforms, most of which have yet to be finalized.

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One thing that is clear: The Western dichotomy of left and right does not seem to apply in Lebanon. Take Citizens’ Movement (CM), a group with a core of 15, still unsure if they will run. Members say they are far left when it comes to personal freedoms (supportive of gay marriage, for example, but cognizant that it would not be a campaign pledge to highlight in every district of the country), yet ranging between center-left and center-right on economic policies, as per their own self-description. Pressed to consider how to sell policy positions that are not consistently “black or white,” Citizens’ Movement Co-founder Elias Abu Mrad offers, “People in Lebanon don’t ask this. Europeans ask this.” Assad Thebian, co-founder of the You Stink movement, agreed, suggesting: “[Lebanese] don’t care if you’re socialist or progressive. All they care about is two things: Who are you and what are you going to do?”

So who are they?

The opposition today roughly resembles a Venn Diagram with three sets. In general, the would-be new political class has a background in civil society, the private sector, or politics. There is a lot of overlap, and especially amid the 2015 garbage crisis, meetings among the different groups were, by all accounts, frequent. Those meetings continue, with crowd size apparently varying (some groups no longer attend, some attend sporadically). Given the electoral law they will presumably be working with, unity makes the most sense, and many are still hoping for — and working toward — it. During interview after interview, however, Executive asked whether egos or policy differences were the larger barrier to unity, with egos being the democratically selected answer to that question.

The path toward unity

Nearly everyone interviewed for this report agreed that part of Lebanon’s governance problem is the unwritten agreement that all decisions be made by consensus. Establishment politicians frequently meet, discuss issues, and make policy choices outside the framework of state institutions (i.e., cabinet or Parliament). The choices that politicians make are not the result of voting in the Council of Ministers, nor the Chamber of Deputies. Choices are made behind closed doors, and only if everyone can be brought onboard with what that choice may be. Whatever policies and platforms establishment parties tout around election time, the critique is that none have solid principles that they stand by and use to guide decision making. A clearly stated and detailed list of principles and policy goals is the only winning value proposition the opposition can offer. Campaigning with a clear platform is the only hope of success, interviewees explain. As Mohammad Alem, a lawyer who has been involved in opposition meetings since 2015 and who helped draft a 2006 electoral law that inspired the current law agreed upon in June, puts it, “We think that the only way out is the creation of a very strong, unified political platform that has the courage to try to take 10, 15, or 20 seats in the election.”

According to Alem, Thebian, and Gilbert Doumit, a management consultant self-described as having a foot in all three of our Venn Diagram circles, efforts toward a unified opposition platform — with a socio-economic focus — is advancing.  Doumit elaborates: “I think everyone is conscious that there’s no way but coming together. There’s a maturing process. Conversation and substance in social movement are maturing. In my experience it’s [now] the first time that people are taking it seriously that there should be an agenda and joint platform. This was not there at previous election times. A different conversation is happening now.”

As individuals, the three say they are involved in attempts to build a unified opposition coalition. Additionally, a group with some 20 members called Alternative Lebanon is also in the mix. Party member Nassib Khoury explains that Alternative Lebanon is in talks with no less than 34 other groups and parties. While Alternative Lebanon seeks parliament seats as a primary objective, Khoury says that the group prioritizes disrupting dysfunctionality in Lebanon through lobbying and fact-checking information the government disseminates. 

But not everyone is waiting to hammer out a unified opposition platform.

The decided

Citizens in a State, a new political party headed by former Labor Minister and long-time critic of government policy Charbel Nahas, has a platform, which it ran on during the 2016 municipal elections, explains Ahmad el-Assi, a group member who says the party received 7-8 percent of the vote in the municipalities where its candidates ran. Assi says Citizens in a State grew frustrated with the attempts at building consensus around a unified platform two years ago, and thus, wrote their own. He says the party will still “welcome anyone who wants to talk to us.”

Assi explains that his party’s economic priorities are making Lebanon more productive and better distribution of wealth through taxation and increasing public-sector wages. He also says Citizens in a State tackles policy issues as they come instead of regularly trumpeting each piece of their party platform (for example, they have an electricity plan, he says, but at the time of the interview, before the public sector wage increase was approved by Parliament, the party focused its messaging only on the wage scale).

Although Citizens in a State has a platform in hand, the party has not decided on a set strategy for contesting the 2018 polls (i.e., running candidates in each district, striking alliances with other opposition groups, etc).    

The Party of Lebanon (PoL), by contrast, has a set goal of fielding candidates for all 128 seats in Parliament, according to its president; Jacques Mechelany. The protests inspired by the 2015 garbage crisis convinced PoL’s core members — around 25 people out of 300 total partisans — that Lebanon was ready for political change, however the party was also frustrated with the lack of clear policy proposals during anti-establishment discussions in 2015. “People were ready to destroy everything, but had no alternative to propose,” he says of the 2015 meetings.

PoL has a 13-point manifesto  that, Mechelany says, represents hope for building a better Lebanon. It is heavy on reform and private-sector involvement as a means to upgrade the country’s crumbling infrastructure, with building a non-sectarian meritocracy at its core. PoL’s platform is its litmus test for creating alliances, and its goal is 1 million members and a parliamentary majority to realize its platform. Mechelany will not set a timeframe for achieving either goal, but is confident that with an estimated 7 million potential voters living in Lebanon or maintaining close ties from abroad, 1 million members and a parliamentary majority is not the stuff of dreams. 

The crowdsourced approach

In October 2016, purple billboards (one featuring many small fish ganging up on a very large fish) were found all over Lebanon. The $60,000 campaign introduced the country to Sabaa, a new political party in the discussion phase of building a platform. Secretary General Jad Dagher explains that Sabaa is still in talks with the various opposition circles to forge a united policy agenda, while also engaging people throughout the country, so that  “citizens participate in this program.” The party has experts to draft position papers, but also wants to ensure its proposals meet local needs.

Like the others, Sabaa eschews right/left labeling. Dagher describes the party as “center” and explains, “We do give priority to the prosperity and welfare of citizens, the happiness of citizens. This is why we base our policies on indices measuring the happiness of citizens, sustainable development, and give less importance to traditional indexes, which measure only the economic activities of the country.”

He insists Sabaa’s goal is a parliamentary majority in 2018, even while admitting that “we are of course realistic, we are doing our calculations in a realistic manner, but I will not lower the bar for the moment.”

The outsider coming from inside

Over a decade ago, Roger Edde, whose brand is ubiquitous in Byblos, founded the Peace Party. Born two years before the Lebanese Republic, Edde is related to the country’s first president post independence, Bechara el-Khoury, through his mother, and former president Emile Edde through his father. As a young man, Edde says he was politically active and retains ties with could-be candidates in districts throughout the country.

The Peace Party has been involved in opposition talks for two years now, he says, and is gearing up for a campaign run on a platform of hope that has yet to be finalized (it will likely entail 10 main points related to privatization, full decentralization and socio-economic priorities). As for opposition unity, he sees the Peace Party as an umbrella various groups will eventually come under. “I will lead the effort 100 percent, and will coordinate it,” he explains, offering his lineage to explain why. “Nobody has my inheritance of leadership.”

While Executive did not query every source on how willing they were to join Edde, the asset he sees in his heritage could actually be a liability. Speaking of some other likely candidates with a history of working within the system, one source described their anti-establishment credentials as “bullshit.” The question of how much exposure to the system can discredit someone attempting to join a unified opposition is likely to receive more intense focus in the months to come.

Still deciding

Everyone interviewed for this article explained that opposition parties are still not yet in full campaign mode, and that strategic decisions are yet to be formally made (i.e., which specific candidates to field, which districts to contest, whether or not and with whom to ally). Some have not formally decided to run, Beirut Madiniti being the most prominent example. Representatives of the group told Executive that, since it began as a city-focused initiative, it has not decided internally whether to shift to a national focus or not. That said, there are lesser known groups, such as Citizen’s Movement, that hope to have an impact on the overall policy discussions in the country, whether they run or not.

Citizens’ Movement (CM) grew out of an initiative called Take Back Parliament that attempted to run in the repeatedly postponed 2013 parliamentary elections. Registered as a political party, along with its core membership CM has a board of five. It has not decided whether or not to run, explains co-founder Abu Mrad, and is focusing on building a platform by doing deep studies of specific issues (public transportation, fair trade, and oil and gas are among the topics on which CM is currently well-versed with specific policy proposals). The party may run in 2018, or may wait until 2022, Abu Mrad says.

Hopeful but realistic

While the final shape of Lebanon’s opposition during the 2018 polls is still unclear, everyone interviewed for this article admitted they face an uphill battle. They anticipate dirty tricks and attempts by the establishment  to delegitimize them. While they all recognize that a parliamentary majority is the only way to implement even parts of their platforms, most realistically expect no more than 20 seats in 2018. Once the exact mode of campaigning is settled, one expects the next challenge will be governing as a minority or continuing to push campaign messages from the outside until the next chance to transform the system.

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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